Look at that poster and despair! Every aspect of it - the purple, the lighting, the woman's pose, the woman's deeply inefficient clothing, and every last piece of text - promises a sultry erotic drama. The only thing, and even then it's questionable, that tips us off that it's anything even near to the vicinity of horror is the actual font used for the words The House on Sorority Row themselves. And I'm not the only one who thought so: writer-director Mark Rosman, for whom this was a labor of love uncommon in slashers of the 1980s was a vocal opponent of the image that, whatever the hell it was selling, didn't have a damn thing to do with the actual content of the film. Which for the most part is exactly what you suppose that a slasher film released in 1983 under the title The House on Sorority Row would have as its content. The sub-sub-genre of slasher films set in college housing was older than the slasher boom of the 1980s; no less a seminal text than the 1974 Black Christmas tells a story that's much akin to the one in THoSR, different more in cosmetic details (the time of year; the exact nature of the scenes that take place while the killing is waiting to start up) than in anything of substance.

Despite how obviously it would seem to be case that what you see is exactly what you get, THoSR has picked up a reputation over the years as one of the slasher movies that get it right. It is one of the handful of '80s slashers deemed iconic enough to win its very own remake, for one thing, in the form of 2009's Sorority Row, and it was one of the last breakout hits as the slasher genre started to run out of gas in '83 and '84 - just a mere $10.6 million, but on a penny-pinching budget of less than a half-million dollars, that was a pretty miraculous return on investment at the time.

The trick about the film is that it absolutely deserves its reputation, but it doesn't seem that way for a really long time. At the beginning, in fact, The House on Sorority Row seems to be at best a lateral step in quality from the previous year's crummy The Dorm That Dripped Blood, to keep it within the college slasher wheelhouse. It pukes characters at us without slowing down to differentiate them, or in some cases even give them names, and all the characteristics it bothers to deliver are enough to promise that we're going to really hate spending 90 minutes in their dwindling company. And even that's only after the film's greatly unpromising opening scene: on 19 June, 1961, a woman give birth via caesarian section to a baby who is grimly declared by the doctor to be yet another failure. A failure at what, we're not told. And if you share my particular set of hang-ups, you don't care, either: the sequence, intended by Rosman to be in black-and-white, was tinted blue at the distributor's insistence, which had the effective of accentuating some already cloudy focus, and it all basically looks like you washed your contacts in Vaseline before watching the movie. You know what's crisp, though? The sound. The sound is so crisp and hard and over-recorded that it just about cuts your eardrums. And of course, this is all so emphatically vague that you just know goddamn well that it's going to rotate back and provide the hideous backstory of the movie later on.

So that wraps itself up, anyway, and the movie picks up - still in a groove that feels like it comes from a battered library copy of the How to Make a Slasher playbook, but at least it starts to have momentum - to find the last day of school. Would you believe that it's 19 June? You had damned well better. Seven women, all seniors, all members of the same sorority, have stayed behind to plan a party at their sorority house, and in so doing are knowingly breaking the rules, to their peril: house mother Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt, redubbed by Barbara Harris - and through no fault of either actress, the re-dubbing is the most atrocious, film-breaking thing) is a mean tyrant at the best of times, and she openly hates the girls in her care, which makes defying her a fools' errand. And this is not the best of times: Slater's physician, Dr. Beck (Christopher Lawrence), has just given her the news that her unspecified Condition is getting worse, and she should avoid stress, particular the unspecified Stress that exists back at the sorority house.

Coming back to find her unwanted wards fucking around, getting drunk, and having playfully smutty conversations is exactly the worst thing for Slater's mood, and so it is that she goes a little bit nuclear. This leads the girls, and especially queen bee Vicki (Eileen Davidson), to concoct a nasty plot: they'll throw Slater's omnipresent cane, with a nastily spiky decorative top, into the filthy pool she refuses to clean, and force her to dive in to retrieve at gunpoint. Fake gunpoint of course. But we wouldn't have a movie if the gun didn't accidentally have a real bullet after the blanks, and if Vicki didn't accidentally murder Slater. In a panic, and with a whole mess of people to show show up any minute for a going-away party, the girls, absent the requisite sexless moral one, Katherine (Kathryn McNeil), agree to pitch the old woman's body in the murky water and deal with her later. I pray that I give away nothing if I mention that during the party, the girls (and, for no obvious reason, one random guy) start vanishing, killed by a shadow wielding that same spiky cane, and by the time the survivors have figured out what's going enough to shutter the party and investigate the pool, Slater's body is missing.

It's enough of a frustration that this supposedly Actually Good Slasher Movie has such a somberly trite plot; the part that really annoyed me was that it couldn't even bother to distinguish the five sisters who weren't the obvious Final Girl Katherine, or the obvious Guilty One Who Dies Last Vicki. They are, for the record, Liz (Janis Zido), Jeanie (Robin Meloy), Diane (Harley Kozak), Morgan (Jodie Draigie), and Steve (Ellen Dorsher), and other than their hairstyles, I could not tell them apart with a gun to my head. But Rosman games things a little bit: when he separates a girl from the group, to have her meet her grisly end, that's when he throws in odd and unexpected grace notes of characterisation. In tiny little gestures, sometimes as simple as focusing on the actresses' expressions longer than seems natural, the film quickly etches out a little bit of something we should know about each of these women right at the moment we know that they're going to die. And then, in most cases, the film cuts to Katherine wondering aloud where [name] might have gotten to. It's ironic, of course, but the way it's repeated, almost like a litany, also serves a symbolic reminder that each of the victims has an identity, and they have at least one person who's actively concerned for them. This is small, but it adds a layer of confusing, "that's not what slashers do" depth to the proceedings.

Meanwhile, THoSR also plays around with our expectations by its stylistic weirdness. That Rosman had an attachment to the material rare in a slasher director, I have noted (it somehow feels exactly right that his career wouldn't end up in derivative horror, but in shepherding Hilary Duff properties to completion), and this resulted in some anxiety about doing unusual things with the camera - not always successfully! There's a slow zoom into Slater's unreadable face when she's staring down Vicki and the gun that is an absolutely wretched choice. But in generalities more than in specifics, THoSR benefits from a more subdued, watchful style than the usual flat-footed "hey, ya wanna see tits? Howsabout some gore?" camera-wrangling. And even that's not as noticeable as the incongruous Richard H. Band score, which is easily the most off-kilter music I've ever heard in a slasher movie. In and of itself, it's full of soaring, Romantic poetics, like an ad for diarrhea medicine that spends its whole running time focusing on gauzy shots of wildflowers, accomplished with generic hackiness. So it's pretty, but in an empty way - which is no different than pretty with structural pyrotechnics and complex harmonies, when the context for it is a run-of-the-mill slasher movie.

The textural strangeness that happens from the visuals and the music is enough to make THoSR an unusual, unexplainable experience for long enough that it's hard to get bored with it during its largely adequate first and second acts, typified by thoroughly unexceptional performances, too-long cutaways to a band playing at the girls' party, and murders that are significantly lacking in blood. And that is its most important trick - to get us to the third act without having turned on it. Because the third act - it's amazing. There's very little in 1980s American horror that compares to it. What happens, in the essentials, is that Dr. Beck shows up, knowing exactly what's going on, and he decides to set a trap for the killer, with Katherine as bait. To this end, he gives her a sedative against her will (and for this sin, he appropriately dies), and it apparently has a hallucinogenic quality as well, for what happens to Katherine's mind over the next ten minutes abandons any conventional mode of horror for a surrealist collage of image, lighting, and editing - tiny little jump cuts that feel like the movie is having a series of strokes, the disorienting impression that a little toy clown has instantaneously leaped to human size to embody the killer, and the film's most famous image, of a disembodied head looking up from a toilet bowl with a patient, knowing look. Some of these images are genuinely hallucinatory, some are real things Katherine sees, given a fuzzy abstraction thanks to the overall bugfuck mood of this whole ending gambit. But all of them are striking.

The end of The House on Sorority Row is among the most captivating, essential stretches of cinema in the whole of the 1980s slasher boom, fully justifying every minute of the sometimes aimless experience of the movie up to that point. A great final act following a slightly intriguing but mostly banal hour and change is hardly enough to make an all-time great genre film, and I'd rather have any of the top-to-bottom great slashers than one that peaks after making me wake for too damn long. But this is still essential viewing for anyone with even a little bit of interest in the overall slasher ecosystem, easily the best slasher of 1983 (not a high bar), and a demonstration that intentional, creative filmmaking can happen in any atmosphere, even when the limits of genre put firm bounds on how much that filmmaking is allowed to flourish.

Body Count: 9 humans and one pet songbird.